Retired New Jersey doctor William Merlino spent his golden years selling weight-loss drugs online.
But the problem was that the pills he sold were made from DNP, or dinitrophenol, a chemical used as a herbicide or wood preservative that is toxic for human consumption, federal prosecutors said.
He compounded and pressed the pills himself in his Mays Landing home and when he would take them to a shipping agent to send to customers, who had found him on eBay and Twitter, his hands and face would be covered with a fine yellow dust from the chemical he was working with, according to testimony given at trial.
Workers at the store said they took to calling Merlino “the yellow man.”
Merlino’s weight-loss business had tragic consequences, federal prosecutors said. In 2018, they say he sent a batch of pills to a 21-year-old man in the United Kingdom, who would go on to die of an overdose from the toxic drug.
Correspondence discovered by U.K. authorities revealed that while Merlino had advertised the drug as an agricultural product, he had given detailed instructions to the victim on how to use it to lose weight.
“Merlino knew that his business was illegal and his product was dangerous,” prosecutors wrote in a filing in federal court in Philadelphia.
Federal prosecutors say Merlino had been selling the drug online from late 2017 until early 2019, when he was arrested following the death of the 21-year-old customer in the U.K. During that time he had made around $54,000 selling the pills to hundreds of people in the U.S., Canada and England.
In 2021, while his case was almost ready to go to trial, prosecutors say Merlino submitted false documents saying he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and asking for a delay. The judge agreed, and Merlino’s trial was put off for over a year before the ruse was discovered.
On Wednesday, the 85-year-old Merlino was sentenced to 33-months in prison after being convicted at trial of selling misbranded drugs online and obstruction of justice, for lying about the cancer diagnosis.
Merlino’s lawyer, Robert Gamburg, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment, but in court filings argued that his client, who had been a physician in and around Philadelphia for over 40 years until his retirement in 2005, did not sell the drug purely for profit.
“The defendant’s position is that he thought it was a good product,” Gamburg wrote. “Mr. Merlino made extremely poor decisions that have cost him dearly.”
Prosecutors say the drug, DNP, had once been used as weight-loss aid back in the 1930s before the creation of the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the use of drugs and chemicals for human consumption.
While DNP was effective in helping patients lose weight, it also caused serious side effects, such as dehydration, cataracts, liver damage and even death, Therefore it has never been approved by the FDA for human use.
To fake his cancer diagnosis, prosecutors say Merlino had used medical records provided to him by a long-time friend whose spouse had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had asked him for his opinion.
Merlino then doctored the records to make them look like his own, and then provided phony letters purportedly from an oncologist saying that he required serious treatment and that a trial delay was needed.
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